By: Haley Ade
Photo by: Scowcroft Center
Dr. Matthew Kroenig, Senior Fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and Associate Professor in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University; Rebecca Hersman, Director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and Senior Adviser for the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; retired Admiral Cecil Haney, former commander of US Strategic Command; and Dr. James N. Miller, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, discussed “The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy,” and the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released February 2nd, in conversation at the Atlantic Council on February 26. The event was moderated by New York Times Pentagon Correspondent Thom Shanker.
Typically, a new review is released every five to ten years to reassess the role that nuclear weapons play in US strategy. In considering whether the most recent iteration of the NPR provides more continuity or marks a change in US policy, the panel agreed that the document does not demonstrate a drastic departure from previous policy. Ms. Hersman remarked that comparing reviews across administrations is helpful-the 2010 NPR was “slightly left of center,” while the 2018 version falls “slightly right of center.” Yet, as Dr. Kroenig pointed out, the threat has changed since the last review in 2010. With Russia’s emphasis on nuclear capabilities, he can see a “clear pathway” to conflict between the U.S. or NATO and Russia. He sees Russia’s investments in furthering its nuclear capabilities as credible signals that indicate a real threat. Putin appears to “believe that he can use nuclear weapons and get away with it.” Adm. Haney also expressed concern regarding unique threats from Russia, China, and North Korea; specifically, Russia’s investment in a “significant quantity” of nuclear weapons, China’s progress toward developing a functional nuclear triad (the capability to delivery nuclear weapons by land, sea, and air), and North Korea’s increased testing and weapons proliferation. Ms. Hersman agreed that the world is more dangerous today than at the time of the 2010 review. Dr. Miller also noted a discontinuity between the posture review and real-world threats. The NPR emphasized the threat posed by China, but Dr. Miller and Dr. Kroenig emphasized the need to prioritize the threat presented by Russia. Meanwhile, although Iran has become less of a threat, policymakers should be planning for next steps following the end of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action terms in 2024. According to Adm. Haney, readers of the NPR should be cognizant that apparent gaps in strategy may be explained by unreleased, classified information.
On the topic of low-yield (aka tactical) nuclear weapons, Mr. Shanker wondered about a future deterioration of nuclear peace and deterrence. Dr. Miller suggested that this would not be the case, adding that tactical nuclear weapons exist in the current arsenal. Instead, Dr. Miller argued low-yield weapons actually contribute to a more stable peace by reducing the threshold for U.S. use. Ms. Hersman seconded the opinion that these weapons would not be destabilizing but added that they may not be worth the controversy generated.
Some commentators have alleged that the NPR creates the option for a nuclear response to a cyberattack, but Dr. Miller feels that the administration was simply unclear in the rollout of their declaratory policy. The panelists agreed that the NPR itself does not advocate for nuclear retaliation in the wake of a cyberattack. According to Dr. Miller, this dichotomy would reduce US credibility, even if Russia or China could execute a catastrophic attack via cyber means. Ms. Hersman believes that, in determining scenarios in which nuclear weapons could be used in retaliation, the NPR could benefit from increased descriptors regarding the level of attack, rather than emphasizing type. Dr. Kroenig added that a non-nuclear strategic attack, including a chemical or biological event, would be devastating. Nuclear deterrence is generally justified in the case of any strategic threat.
On the topic of budget, all panelists agreed that the costs of nuclear modernization were reasonable, with Dr. Miller adding that it would be irresponsible to neglect the nuclear arsenal on the grounds of fiscal concerns. Dr. Kroenig stated that current appropriations for nuclear modernization account for just 5-7% of the total US defense budget.
Mr. Shanker also raised the issue of the “right” number of nuclear weapons. Dr. Kroenig addresses this issue in his most recent book, stating that the U.S. has never been content to have just “enough” weapons-which makes sense in the context of the “games of nuclear chicken (the U.S. plays) every day.” Adm. Haney added that there is no statement in the NPR to indicate an imminent growth to nuclear stockpiles. Ms. Hersman predicts that the U.S. will remain in compliance with current treaty obligations.
The proliferation of nuclear weapons around the world is was another major concern discussed. The panelists cannot envision the U.S. falling behind another other state. Mr. Shanker questioned whether modifications to the US arsenal could be an “engine for proliferation” elsewhere. No panelist was able to dispel this worry with confidence. However, in another nod to the importance of credibility, Adm. Haney warned that nuclear nonproliferation would be undermined if the U.S. were to lose the comparative capability to deter threats to itself and allies. Dr. Kroenig added that the maintenance of the nuclear umbrella, the policy by which the U.S. extends the protection of its arsenal to allies, is a factor. Ms. Hersman suggested that the “overall direction of arms control” is only one factor, despite the maintenance of an arsenal, the U.S. can still “lead on nuclear nonproliferation” and work to prevent the transfer of weapons and capabilities between states. As a final note, Dr. Miller called for additional “following up on some of the initiatives on fissile material” and demonstration that the U.S. is in fact abiding by Article VI of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (termination of the arms race and gradual disarmament), a goal that could be furthered by the possession of tactical weapons.